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´╗┐Title: Virgin Ground
Author: Brown, Rosel George
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Virgin Ground" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                             VIRGIN GROUND

                         BY ROSEL GEORGE BROWN

                _Annie signed on a bride ship for Mars.
                 There were forty brides. And when she
               got there, thirty-nine men were waiting._

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
             Worlds of If Science Fiction, February 1959.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


The pilot shoved open the airlock and kicked the stairs down.

"Okay, girls. Carry your suitcases and I'll give each of you an oxygen
mask as you go out. The air's been breathable for fifteen years, but
it's still thin to newcomers. If you feel dizzy, take a whiff of
oxygen."

The forty women just stood there and looked at each other. Nobody
wanted to be first.

Annie moved forward, her bulky suitcase practically floating in her
hand. She was a big woman with that wholesome expression which some
women have to substitute for sex appeal. She'd made a great senior
leader at summer camps.

"I'll go first," she said, grinning confidence into the others. "I'm
not likely to bring out the beast in them." She waved herself out,
letting the grin set and jell.

It was odd to feel light. She'd felt too heavy as far back as she could
remember. Not fat heavy. Bone heavy.

The sweat on her face dried suddenly. She could feel it, like
something being peeled off her skin. Arid climate.

It was cold. But she had the warmth to meet it.

There they were! Forty men. There were supposed to be forty. What if
one of them had died! Who would go back?

"Not me," Annie prayed to herself. "Dear God, not me." She tried to
count them. But they moved around so!

They were looking at something. Not Annie. The girl coming down the
ramp behind Annie.

It was Sally, with the blonde hair on her shoulders. That's all they'd
be able to see from there. The blonde hair.

But a man was coming forward. He had a tam-like hat pulled low to
good-humored eyes, and an easy stride.

"Wait, Ben," one of the other men said. "See the others."

"I pulled first, didn't I?"

"Yeah. But you ain't seen but two yet."

"I want that blonde one. Let Gary see the others."

And he led Sally away.

He didn't feel her muscles or look at her teeth or measure her pelvic
span.

After Sally came Nora. Nora giggled and waved, making a shape under the
shapeless clothes. Wasn't that just like Nora? Okay. So she was cute.

Second man took Nora. He didn't wait for the others.

Third man took Regina. Regina looked scared, but you could see those
big cow eyes a mile off. Regina obviously needed somebody to protect
her.

The other girls came out. Annie counted and her heart hit bottom.
Someone was going to be left over.

Four women, three men. They all felt embarrassed. It was the kind of
thing the colonists would talk about for years. Who was last. Who was
second to last. Spiteful people would remember, and in a tight little
community, spite took root and throve on the least misinterpreted
expression or--But then, this wouldn't be a tight little community,
Annie remembered. The lichen farms were spread out over the whole
temperate belt of the world. Because the lichens were grown only on
hills, where the sand would not cover them. And because they did a more
efficient job of oxygenating the atmosphere when they were spread over
a wide area.

One man, hat in hand, even in the cold. A little shriveled man with a
spike of dust-colored hair, but kind-looking.

"Aw...." he drawled in embarrassment. He clicked his tongue. "You're
both probably too good for somebody like me. I don't know. Both fine
women."

The two women stood in silence.

"What's your name?"

"Annie."

"Mary."

"Mary? My sister's named Mary. Fine woman." He took Mary's hand. "No
disrespect to you, Annie."

They were all gone.

"I could take you on my Venus run," the pilot said. He, too, was
embarrassed. "But I'm afraid I'll have a full ship after that. Unless
you can buy the weight and space. I'd be glad to take you free. But the
company...."

Annie's eyes were full but she wasn't going to let them spill.

Sally brought Ben by, already looking self-consciously married.

"I'm sorry, honey," she said. "Look, Annie, if you want to come stay
with us until another shipment of pioneers come to break ground, you're
welcome. Maybe you'd--er--find one of them you liked."

It was a gesture of kindness, of course, but it made Annie's eyes
spill. She turned her head away, toward the red hills. Red and the
cultivated ones green. Christmas colors.

"Sure," Ben said. "Swell. Any friend of Sally's is a friend of mine."

And the way they looked at each other made Annie's heart lurch.

"Thanks, kids," she said. "But I don't believe I'll try it. And don't
worry. This isn't the first time I've been stood up."

"Are you coming?" the pilot shouted across the field. "Hate to rush
you, but I've got a schedule to meet."

Was she coming? What else could she do?

"What happened to him, Ben?" Annie asked. "My--the other man that
should have been here."

Ben worried a hole in the sand with one foot and cleared his throat.
"He stayed home."

"You mean he's _alive_! Here?"

"Well ... yes. But he didn't--"

"Never mind. I don't need anybody to strum a guitar under my window.
If he couldn't get away from the farm today I can certainly go to him.
I've got a pair of legs that'll walk around the world."

"You coming?" the pilot shouted.

"No!" Annie cried. "I live here."

The spaceship took off, a phoenix rising from the flames.

Ben was shuffling his feet, hands in his pockets. "We'd be proud to
have you stay with us, Annie."

"Oh, cut it out, Ben. I'm no hot-house rose. Just tell me which way and
I'll find my own farm." She paused, trying to guess his thoughts.

"You think he might be disappointed when he sees me? Is that it, Ben? I
know I'm no pinup girl. But I'm a worker and a breeder. He'll see it.
In the end, that's what's going to count."

Ben was still making holes in the sand with his feet, trying to say
something.

"Please don't worry," Annie went on, "your friend won't be sorry. If he
doesn't want to marry me right away--okay. I can understand it. But I
can give him a chance to watch me work."

"That isn't it," Ben said finally. "I think you look fine, Annie.
It's--it's _any_ woman. He told them not to send a wife for him. _Any_
woman."

"But that's ridiculous. He knows the laws. Five years and then a wife.
Why did he stake out in the first place?"

"That was before," Ben answered.

"Before what?"

"Aw, it's not for me to say. Why don't you just forget Bradman. He's a
good enough guy. But not for you. You come--"

"Which way and how far?"

Ben looked at her hard. "Okay. On Mars your life is your own." He
pointed. "Second farmbubble you come to. And you'd better hurry. It
ought to take eight hours and night falls like a ton of bricks here."

Annie made it in seven. Easy.

       *       *       *       *       *

She went up to the transparent hemisphere. He was inside working. She
shouted, but if he heard her he didn't look up.

She went to the flap that must be the door. There wasn't anything to
knock on, so she opened the flap and walked in.

There was nothing in the room but a cot, kitchen equipment and lichen,
growing on a number of tables. The air was richer than outside and
Annie breathed it thirstily.

"I'm Annie Strug," she said, smiling and wishing it wasn't such an ugly
name.

He glanced up, angry blue eyes under a growth of black hair. He didn't
say a word.

Annie set her suitcase down and looked out at the green growth on the
hills.

"Look, Mr. Bradman," she cried suddenly, pointing a spatulate finger to
the western horizon. "What in the name of heaven is that?" There was a
catch of fright in her voice.

"We don't say 'mister' on Mars," he said reluctantly. "Brady. But you
don't have to call me anything because you're leaving soon." He was a
big, arid man with a sandy voice. But his hands, as he stripped the
lumpy brown fruits from a giant lichen, were surprisingly delicate.

"What _is_ it?" Annie asked again, turning instinctively to the big man
for a reassurance and protection she had no reason to expect.

Bradman straightened and moved away from her, looking at the black
giant growing up from the earth in the distance and moving straight
toward them.

"It's a sandstorm," he said. "It'll be here in ten minutes."

Annie let out the breath she had been holding. "Oh. That doesn't sound
so bad. I don't know what I thought it was. I was just frightened." She
smiled shyly and apologetically at Bradman.

Bradman grimaced at her, his agate eyes frozen in a pallid face that
should have gone with red hair. The sand-blown lines in his face were
cruel. "Sister, you've got a smile like a slab of concrete. Don't try
it again."

"You didn't _have_ to say that," Annie said quietly, closing her eyes
against the winds of her anger.

"You didn't have to come here," he replied. "Goodbye."

"I'm not leaving," she said, still holding tight the doors of her anger.

"_I_ am." He paced heavily over the sand floor and pulled back the flap
of the door.

"Where are you going?" Annie glanced back at the towering giant, now
glowing red in the sunlight, like some huge, grotesque devil.

"Into the storm cellar. Nobody lives through a Martian sandstorm."

Annie ran after him. "For God's sake take me with you! You can't leave
me...."

"Mine's built for one," he said, and pulled the top in over him as he
disappeared into the hole.

Annie broke her fingernails pulling at the cover. The wind was blowing
sand in her eyes. She saw blood staining the rim of her index finger.
She pounded with her fists.

"Let me in!" she screamed. "In the name of God!" But all she heard was
the keening sand in the wind.

She looked around. The devil was closer, malignant and hungry. It
wanted to eat her alive.

It made her angry.

"I'll fight it," she screamed. "By God, I'll fight!"

Five minutes, she guessed. Maybe five minutes left. She ran into the
house, ripped open her suitcase. Bundles of nylon marriage clothes. She
began to sob. Some were with lace.

"Fight!" she shouted to herself. There was her oxygen mask. How much
oxygen? Anybody's guess. It was made for maybe a few whiffs a day over
a period of several months.

Swell. But it wouldn't keep the sand from tearing through her eyeballs
and flaying her alive.

Wrap in nylon nightgowns? Ridiculous.

Spacesuit?

Annie went through the one-room house as fast as she could. No
spacesuit. Why should he have one?

Three minutes left.

Sand was blowing under the hemisphere, piling up at one end and oozing
out beneath.

It was possible she would simply be buried.

The refrigerator!

That wasn't a refrigerator. Only a cabinet, loosely joined.

Annie went outside, on the side where the field of lichens grew up a
smooth, stone hill. The red devil was whistling at her now; a low,
insinuating whistle.

Something rattled faintly against one steel rib of the hemisphere. It
was a shrub, about five feet tall.

Annie began to laugh hysterically. Brady had protected the shrub with
loving care. It was tied to the steel rib through grommetted holes in
the hemisphere, and covered with its own plastic bag to shield off the
wind.

One minute.

The red devil was shouting now, laughing with triumph. He ran his sandy
fingers through her hair and blew his gritty breath in her eyes.

She pulled the zipper at the bottom of the polyethylene bag that
covered the shrub and yanked the bag off. It was heavy, almost oily
plastic, slippery and pliant.

There was no time to decide whether it would be better inside or
outside the house. She pulled the bag over her head inside out, so the
zipper would close completely. Then she folded the zipper part under
once and wedged herself as far as she could go into the space between
shrub and hemisphere, holding the oxygen mask in her teeth.

With infinite care, though she was not likely to split the heavy bag,
she pulled off her shoes and her heavy, woollen walking socks. She put
the shoes back on. Her slacks covered her legs. Only her ankles were
bare.

She unraveled one sock and stuffed the yarn in her ears. There was a
sudden, remarkable quiet. Then, even through the yarn came the roar of
the storm. For it was upon her.

She looked through the milky plastic into a wild, red inferno, spitting
at her in furious frustration. Then she bound the other sock over her
eyes.

She was in a blind, muffled world now, buffeted against the shrub and
the wires and the steel rib, but not painfully, because of her heavy
clothing. It was as though suddenly all her senses had been switched to
the last pitch before silence.

"I might live," Annie thought. "I might."

       *       *       *       *       *

There was sand in the bag now. Annie could feel it sifting under her
collar and blowing up her ankles. Not much. It was coming from the
bottom of the bag. Probably the end of the zipper had worked open just
a little.

Was that the dull roar of the storm through her stoppered ears or the
rushing of her own blood? If sand were seeping in, the storm must still
be on.

How did Bradman breathe in his storm cellar? Would the storm last long
enough for the air to go bad? It would go bad fast, in an enclosed
place on Mars.

Bradman. What sort of monster would walk off and let another human
being die? Without a glance backwards? Did the cold desert wear the
humanity out of a man? How did a human being get like that?

"'You've got a smile like a concrete slab.'" Is that what you say to a
person when you know you're about to leave them to die?

    UNMARRIED WOMEN BETWEEN THE AGES OF 21 AND 30. GOOD HEALTH. WELL
    ADJUSTED. MARRIAGE ON ARRIVAL. MARS TRANSPORT LEAVES OCT. 1.

Good health ... well adjusted ... she could see the printed words, red
stereo words reaching out from the page. Unmarried women between ...
they came and went in her mind and there was a roar in her ears. The
words were gone now. Only a redness that came and went. No. A blackness.

Annie snatched the exhausted oxygen mask off her face and gulped a
pallid, sandy breath of air. It wouldn't do. She took the sock off her
eyes and bound it around her nose and mouth. It would filter some of
the sand out. She opened her eyes briefly and closed them. The grit
stayed in. She didn't dare open them again.

But the storm looked weaker. Or was it her imagination?

She groped for the zipper. Foul air would kill her quicker than sand.
She couldn't find it.

Hell with the zipper! She pulled her little mending kit out of her
pocket and slashed the bag with the scissors.

The storm sounded louder now, with the bag gone. The sand blew under
her eyelids. Ripped her face. Tore a burning circle around each ankle.

Annie put her face in her hands, breathing through her nose and the
sock.

She held herself stiffly. She didn't want to cough.

The whole world was a blind, gritty pain. There was no end to think of.
Only pain.

A grayness.

A blackness.

Finally, a voice. Bradman.

"You ruined my shrub. Did you have to slash the bag, too?"

Annie opened her eyes. They felt red and ruined. They were watering so
much her cheeks were wet. She could hardly see.

She was having a coughing fit. She dragged herself upright. All she
could see was sand. The plastic bubble had blown off the girders and if
the furnishings and her suitcase were there, her eyes were still too
dim to see them.

"Do you know what that shrub's worth on Mars?"

Annie found the yarn had fallen out of one ear and she pulled it out
of the other.

"Do you know what that _bag's_ worth?"

Gall ran in her veins. She spat it out of her mouth.

She backed up to the steel beam and braced her feet against it, light
in the Martian gravity.

"I told them not to send a woman out here."

She pushed off and sank her fist into his teeth. He went down.

She was too light. But he was too light, too. It evened out.

She turned his face and held it in the sand. Her strength was insane.

"Do you know what a human life is worth?" she screamed.

He struggled, but she fought his bucking body, kept his face buried in
the sand until he was dead and a long time after.

An age passed. Annie was frozen in a world rimed over with white
starlight, sequinned with frost.

Then the crosseyed moons came up.

She found an edge of the plastic bubble, rumpled and limp and half
buried in the sand. She pushed off the heaviest hills of sand with her
hands and pulled it out. She climbed up the anchored girders with it,
and then slept the rest of the night in her own home.

The next day she dug out her household supplies from the sand.

The day after she cleared the sand from the lichens on her farm.

On the fourth day she called a few neighbors in and late in the evening
she buried Bradman.

No one questioned her. It had been, after all, self-defense.

She kept the farm as well as any man. Better. She worked. How she
worked! She kept herself numb with labor, her mind drunk with the
liquors of fatigue.

       *       *       *       *       *

After five years, he came. He just appeared inside the door flap,
looking a little nervous but grinning.

"I'm Jack Hamstrong," he said, his voice full and wholesome, like Iowa
corn. "I--you weren't at the spaceport so I figured, what the heck. I
just walked."

"This is _my_ farm," Annie said. "My hands are on every inch of it."

Hamstrong's ruddy face turned in on itself a little. "I know. I know
the story. I didn't come to take anything away. I came to--good Lord,
didn't you _know_ you'd be sent a husband?"

Annie's eyes went queer, like a cat's. "A husband?" If they'd told her,
she hadn't heard. "Go away," she said. She looked around at her farm,
the fruits of her travail--alone. The virgin birth.

"No," he said firmly. "It's yours _and_ mine. Legally. I'm not a mean
man, Annie. You'll find me patient. But stubborn. I can wait."

Annie sighed. Or was it a shudder? She looked up again at the puckering
edges of the evening sky.

She put down the knife she had been peeling a giant lichen with. She
wiped her hands on her apron and lifted the door flap.

"All right, then," she said. "Wait."

"For what?"

"The sandstorm," she said.

And she got into the storm cellar and pulled down the weighty lid,
locking it behind her.





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